NEW YORK (Fortune) -- When it comes to food, everyone's a critic -- even a gentleman like J.W. "Bill" Marriott, the longtime chairman and CEO of Marriott International, the $12.9-billion-a-year hotel giant.
On a trip to Florida, Bill Marriott ordered lobster risotto at one of the company's upscale hotels. Which one, he'd rather not say.
But he will say that the risotto came with an unwelcome brownish hue. "It wasn't good," he said. "Matter of fact, it was bad."
When the people in charge of food and beverages at Marriott's corporate headquarters investigated, they found that the hotel's chef had taken it upon himself to add butternut squash and Marsala wine to the risotto.
Recently, Marriott's most important tastemakers -- Nelson, chief creative officer Robin Uler and vice president for food and beverage Wolfgang Lindlbauer -- presided over an elegant lunch where the company's top executives were invited to taste dishes currently being served by the hotels, as well as potential new offerings. Beside the name of each dish on the printed menu, instead of prices, were check boxes -- one box with a thumbs up, the other with a thumbs down -- so they could express their preferences. The executives, including Bill Marriott and new president Arne Sorenson, hold these lunches in Marriott's Bethesda, Maryland, headquarters every other month, and Fortune was invited along in June.
Mr. Marriott, as everyone calls him, got another chance to try the Spring Pea Risotto with butter poached lobster and cherry tomatoes. His judgment this time? "Excellent." The dish will be on more hotel menus this summer, and not just because it's so tasty.
"One of the unintended consequences of the economic downturn is that the pricing of lobster is way down," Uler explained. Prime beef is cheaper, too, and a California wine merchant has agreed to sell Marriott bottles of wine, formerly priced at $80 apiece, for $30 if the hotels agree to serve it by the glass and promote the brand. That's one upside of the downturn.
Naturally, the economy was on everyone's mind during the lunch. Everyone agreed that a big plate of Hoisin tuna nachos, with seared tuna and Asian vegetables and spices, was delicious. Enthusiasm grew when Lindlbauer noted that the food costs were just $4.50 (with just 3.5 ounces of tuna in the dish) and the item could be priced between $12.90 and $14.50 on menus, mostly at the Champion Sports Bars operated by Marriott. Champions Sports Bars all over the world attract Americans and people who want to eat like them. "They're doing really well in Warsaw, Frankfurt and even Kazakhstan," Lindlbauer said.
Everyone also raved about the Sweet Roasted Plum French Toast, served here as an appetizer but ordinarily offered at breakfast at Renaissance Hotels, another brand operated by Marriott. "This could be a signature 'good morning" to our customers across the Renaissance brand," says Sorenson.
Running through the lunch was a theme: American tastes are becoming more sophisticated. Whether it's the influence of The Food Network, or the fact that some chefs (Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver) have become sex symbols, men especially are have an appetite for more adventurous food, according to Uler, whose job it is to track cultural trends.
"Seared tuna and Asian flavors have gone mainstream," she said, as have other ethnic foods. "If you don't have hummus on your menu, I don't care where you are in the U.S., you are probably losing sales." Marriott wants to keep up with trends, if not set them, in order to attract younger, urban customers as well as its core audience, the more traditional business traveler. "How do you stay timeless and yet innovate?" Uler says. "There's got to be a balance."
Local food is another trend the group is eyeing. They were served a small plate of strawberries picked at a nearby Maryland farm. They aren't as pretty or as sweet as the big California Driscolls sold in supermarkets, which provokes some discussions. "Do people want local or are they used to re-engineered foods?" Sorenson asked.
Bill Marriott, who is 77, sits quietly through most of the meal. He perks up with the arrival of dessert: roasted pineapple and vanilla ice cream trifle, with brown sugar meringue. "This is great stuff," he declares.
Marriott is no hipster. On a typical weekend he's likely to be found dining at the Houston's chain or a Chinese joint called Shanghai Village in suburban Bethesda, not in one of Washington D.C.'s cutting-edge eateries. The company's most notable kitchen innovation was a two-burger, triple-decker sandwich on a sesame seed bun known as the Mighty Mo (and named after the battleship Missouri) introduced by his father, J.W. Marriott, long before Ray Kroc dreamed up the Big Mac.
But J.W. Marriott's slogan -- "success is never final" -- is often quoted inside the company, and Bill Marriott is said to embrace change. (He was one of the Fortune 500's first CEO bloggers.) Sorenson says of his boss: "One of the things that is unique about Mr. Marriott is that he is hard-wired for change, notwithstanding the fact that he has been here for years and is responsible for just about everything we've done. He is more open to change than many of the folks who work for him."
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